The Fascinating History of Mennonites in Paraguay

Mennonites on a river.
Ibeefus / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Travelers to the Chaco region of Paraguay - South America's Last Frontier - often stop at Filadelfia in the heart of the Mennonites in Paraguay.

Mennonite settlers came to Paraguay from Germany, Canada, Russia, and other countries for a number of reasons: religious freedom, the chance to practice their beliefs without hindrance, the quest for land. Although German immigrants had settled in Paraguay before the turn of the 20th century, it wasn't until the 1920s and 30s that many, many more arrived.

Many of the immigrants from Russia were fleeing from the ravages of the Bolshevik Revolution and the later Stalin repressions. They traveled to Germany and to other countries and eventually joined the emigration to Paraguay.

Paraguay welcomed the immigrants. During the War of the Triple Alliance with its neighbors Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina, Paraguay lost substantial territory and many men. Most of Paraguay's population had settled on the eastern portion of the country, east of the River Paraguay, leaving the vast Chaco almost uninhabited. To populate this region of thorn forests, ponds, and marshes, and bolster both the economy and the dwindling population, Paraguay agreed to allow Mennonite settlements.

The Mennonites had the reputation of being excellent farmers, hard-workers, and disciplined in their habits. In addition, the rumor of oil deposits in the Chaco, and Bolivia's encroachment on that area, which resulted in the 1932 War of the Chaco, made it a political necessity to populate the region with Paraguayan citizens. (At the end of the war, Bolivia had lost much of its territory back to Paraguay, but both countries suffered loss of life and credibility.)

In return for religious freedom, exemption from military service, the right to speak German in schools and elsewhere, the right to administer their own educational, medical, social organizations and financial institutions, the Mennonites agreed to colonize an area thought to be inhospitable and unproductive due to the lack of water. The 1921 law passed by the Paraguayan congress in effect allowed the Mennonites in Paraguay to create a state within the state of Boqueron.

Three main waves of immigration arrived:

  • a Canadian group from Manitoba founded the Menno colony in 1926-1927
  • a group from Ukraine and the area of the Amour river came via China and created the Fernheim colony in 1930
  • a group of Russian refugees founded the ​Neuland colony in 1947

Conditions were difficult for the few thousand arrivals. An outbreak of typhoid killed many of the first colonists. The colonists persisted, finding water, creating small cooperative agricultural communities, cattle ranches, and dairy farms. Several of these banded together and formed Filadelfia in 1932. Filadelfia became an organizational, commercial and financial center. The German-language magazine Mennoblatt founded in the early days continues today and a museum in Filadelfia displays artifacts of the Mennonite travels and early struggles. The area supplies the rest of the country with meat and dairy products. You can watch a video recounting Mennonite history in Paraguay at the Hotel Florida in Filadelfia.

Mennonites in Filadelfia

Recognized as the center of the Mennonitenkolonie, Filadelfia is considered the largest and most typical Mennonite community in Paraguay and the growing center of local tourism. The residents still speak Plautdietsch, a language of Canada also called low German, or high German, Hockdeutsch in schools. Many speak Spanish and some English.

The success of the Mennonite community has prompted the Paraguayan government to expand the development of the Chaco, based on the availability of potable water. Some of the Mennonite community fear that their freedoms may be endangered.

The peanut, sesame, and sorgum fields surrounding Filadelfia attract wildlife, mainly birds and that brings the sportsmen from all over the world for pigeon & dove shooting. Others come on hunting trips or photographic safaris to view endangered wildlife and jaguars, pumas and ocelots.

Others, like members of several Indian tribes, are drawn for economic reasons. Travelers to the Chaco buy their handicrafts, like those created by the Nivaclé.

Visiting Filadelfia

With the Trans-Chaco highway linking Asunción (450 km away) and Filadelfia, the Chaco is more accessible. More people use Filadelfia as the base for exploring the Chaco.

Things to do and see in and around Filadelfia:

  • Jakob Unger Museum in Filadelfia chronicles Mennonite arrival and history, plus material about the Indian tribes of the Chaco. Don't miss the mural displaying one man's journey across several countries from Russia to Paraguay.
  • Loma Plata in Menno colony is the oldest and most traditional of the Mennonitenkolonie. The museum exhibits detail early farming life with equipment, a pioneer house, and photographs.
  • Neu-Halbstadt in Neuland colony is the center of the colony and a good place to buy Indian handicrafts.
  • Fortín Toledo to visit the reserve of Proyecto Tagua where once nearly extinct peccaries are nurtured and released into the wild.
  • Parque Nacional Defensores del Chaco, a wooded alluvial plain whose major feature is the 500m (1640ft) Cerro León. The dense thorn forest is home to jaguar, puma, ocelot and Geoffrey's cat. You may be able to get a ride from a ranger as there is no public transportation over the nearly impassable roads.

From Filadelfia, the Ruta Trans-Chaco continues to Bolivia. Be prepared for a dusty ride, in dry weather, with stops at Mariscal Estigarribia and Colonia La Patria, though don't expect any amenities. If you are there in September, take time for the Transchaco Rally.

Like many travelers, you'll just might leave the country saying, "I love Paraguay!"

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